Tips + Techniques

How to Shoot Varied Portrait Looks on a White Backdrop

April 14, 2021

By Zach Sutton

© Zach Sutton

The following is excerpted, with permission, from the article “5 Ways to Shoot Portraits on a White Backdrop” on the Lensrentals blog (we highlight three of those techniques below). Read the entire article by author and photographer Zach Sutton at Lensrentals.

When shooting portrait photography, you’re going to inevitably run into a white backdrop in some form or fashion. Whether it’s a roll of seamless paper, a backdrop made from a V-flat, a cyc wall, or even just a white wall, white backgrounds and backdrops are among the most common tools in portrait work. Despite its simple look, there is a whole lot that you can do with a white background to get very different portrait looks.

How Lighting a White Backdrop Works

If you’ve tried your hand at studio photography, you’ll quickly realize that lighting doesn’t exactly work as your eyes might perceive it. You may look at a white wall, and it appears white, but when you take a picture where your subject is lit and not your backdrop, it’s going to look grey, or even black, depending on the situation. And this is because of many different variables, though the most common one is the Inverse Square Law.

[Read: 14 Backdrops and Props to Use Shooting Portraits]

I won’t bore you with the math behind the Inverse Square Law, but all you need to know is that distance is everything. When using a single light source, the closer you have your subject to the background, the lighter the background will be; the further away, the darker it will be. Let’s use this basic principle to look at a few different ways to use this.

1. The Bright White

The first technique is the most obvious. The bright white is a technique where you light the backdrop so that it appears a solid white color, pulling the focus and attention to the subject. This is a common technique in commercial headshots for actors, but it is also common for a broad range of styles. Achieving this look can be done a couple of different ways, depending on the number of available lights.

Single Light

The first way is the easiest and requires the least amount of lights. The secret to getting the white background in this look is to keep your subject very close to the background, with your lights pulled back from them a bit. With this setting, it should be easy to get a white or “near white” backdrop, while also retaining any color and detail in the skin. However, when having your subject so close to the backdrop, you’ll often get their shadow falling onto the backdrop itself. Below is a lighting diagram, as well as the results of such a technique.

diagram of model against white backdrop.
A white backdrop for portraits can include a white wall that this model standing in front of.
Shot using a Profoto B1X on model with a Magnum Reflector. The model was standing right in front of a white wall.

Multiple Lights

There is the major benefit to using multiple lights though, and that is to independently light the backdrop and source without them interfering with each other. By using multiple lights, you’re able to light the backdrop and your subject independently so that no shadows are cast on the backdrop, giving you the pure white or white void effect. There are no set rules on how many lights you may need to achieve this look (though I prefer to have two lights on the backdrop, one on each side). The distance is key here. To avoid any light bouncing back onto your subject, you’ll want to have a decent amount of distance separating your subject from the backdrop.

[Read: 10 Portrait Photography Lighting Mistakes Easily Fixed]

2. A Medium Grey

Light brightness is heavily affected by distance, and so you’re able to take a traditional white backdrop and darken it to a grey through the use of distance. By moving your subject off of the background, and exposing our light for the subject, you’re able to darken the background quite a bit using only one light. (Lighting diagram and example photos are below.)

White background for portraits diagram.
 With subject pulled away from white backdrop, the background goes gray.
Shot using a Profoto B1X and beauty dish. With the subject pulled away from the backdrop, I am able to darken the backdrop to a medium grey tone.
Model against darker grey background.
Shot using a Profoto B1X in Large Umbrella. Pulled the subject off of the white backdrop to get a darker grey tone by not lighting it.

3. Angelic Lighting

One of my absolute favorite lighting techniques is overexposing the backdrop, allowing it to wrap around the subject and give an angelic look to the images. This technique takes a lot of finesse, as too much overexposure will mute your color and contrast and give the image a hazy look. So the secret I’ve found when doing this technique is to angle a V-flat as a backdrop so that you can maximize the rim and wrapping light without overpowering the backdrop and losing contrast in the image.

Angelic Lighting diagram with an angled V-flat
A white backdrop for portrait looks include this angelic look.
Lit using a Profoto B1X on the model in Large Octabox, and Profoto B1X in V-flat behind the model.

Zach Sutton is the editor and a frequent writer at He’s also an editorial and portrait photographer in Los Angeles, CA, and offers educational workshops on photography and lighting all over North America.